Lowering literature’s brow

The West Bank will become a kooky battleground for a quartet of local writers tonight.

Sarah Harper


What: Literary Death Match

When: Doors open at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 20., show at 7:30 p.m., after-drinks at 9:23 p.m.

Where: Nomad World Pub, 501 Cedar Ave.

Cost: $7 preorder, $10 at the door

Age: 21+

ThereâÄôs going to be a death match on the West Bank tonight âÄî but it wonâÄôt be much of a bloodbath. A boozebath, maybe.

The Literary Death Match will pit four local writers against each other in a competition so carnivalesque that you might forget youâÄôre at a literature reading.

The contenders are Becky Lang, the imaginative overlord of the Tangential network of creative writing blogs; Rob Callahan, the sci-fi-loving, three-piece-suit-wearing novelist; Peter Bognanni, the Macalester College professor who cranked out the punk coming-of-age novel, âÄúThe House of TomorrowâÄù; and Cole âÄúInkyâÄù Sarar, a slammer who waxes poetic on mitochondria and created a chicks-only variety night called Punch Out Poetry.

Two members of this crew have a history âÄî Rob Callahan and Cole Sarar have had an only somewhat amicable beef ever since Sarar creamed Callahan in a competition between storytellers and slam poets last summer.

âÄúCole and I need to have a rematch. And I need to win,âÄù said Rob Callahan. âÄúSheâÄôs Apollo and IâÄôm Rocky.âÄù

No matter who wins or what happens (and youâÄôll never be able guess), tonightâÄôs Death Match, hosted by Maggie Ryan Sanford, a past winner, and Todd Zuniga, co-creator of the Literary Death Match enterprise, will be sure to lower literatureâÄôs altogether too high brow with its goofy hybrid of comedy, performance and literature.

Writers will strut their stuff for seven minutes each in one-on-one matches. Then the victors of the first two feuds will face off in a madcap finale.

Painter Nic Harper, documentary filmmaker Emily Goldberg and Cabaret-creator Leslie Ball will hold forth on their performances based on the categories of literary merit, performance and intangibles.

To give you an idea of what type of writing finds success at a Death Match, Simon Rich âÄî the youngest writer in Saturday Night Live history âÄî won the latest San Francisco event with a story about how he wanted to go back in time and kill Hitler. The imagined conversation he had with a friend after killing Hitler was only one sentence, and it was his friend saying, âÄúOh my God, you just killed that baby!âÄù

Hilarious, right?

âÄúLiterature is effectively life, so if you donâÄôt have humor, itâÄôs not going to be great,âÄù said Zuniga, who is also known as Opium Magazine founding editor. âÄúPeople like laughing, and they like literature, so why separate them?âÄù

Oddly enough, the champ of the Death Match might not necessarily be the most-skilled wordsmith in attendance. The final round doesnâÄôt really involve writing âÄî the winners of the first two rounds will brawl their way through a parlor game, an obstacle course, a silly string shooting contest or something equally unpredictable.

The non-literary nature of the finale is passable because Death Matches arenâÄôt about determining who the best writer is anyway. There ainâÄôt losers, only boozers.

Speaking of no-no juice, audience members donâÄôt get too drunk âÄî but they do get comfortably lubricated.

âÄúFrom zero being they didnâÄôt drink at all to 100 being hospitalizable, and 66 being traditionally wasted, the sweet spot is around 28 percent,âÄù Zuniga said. âÄúWeâÄôve had a couple 80s over the course of 175 events.âÄù

The crowd has no need for beer goggles, though. The type of people who go to Death Matches âÄî which have happened in close to 40 cities, from Beijing to Amsterdam to Miami âÄî have their aesthetic ducks in a row.

âÄúItâÄôs uncanny how hot the crowd is,âÄù said Sarah Moeding, the producer of the Twin Cities Death Match.

âÄúItâÄôs the cream of the crop of fun, smart literary people.âÄù

So you might meet your next main squeeze at the Death Match, especially if you can hold your own in a literary convo.

âÄúLiterature is the new smoking,âÄù Zuniga said. âÄúIf youâÄôre sitting at a dinner and youâÄôre able to talk about a book in an in-depth way, youâÄôre going to kiss infinitely more people in your life.âÄù

The Literary Death Match has found a comfortable place in an atmosphere of uptight people freaking out about the future of books. ItâÄôs a shining example of the notion that writers donâÄôt write into a vacuum. They work best when they come out of their hovels, make friends and hold the attention of an audience.

âÄúSo much of what we do is internal and solitary. Any event that gets us out performing and celebrating what we do is a good reminder that thereâÄôs actually an audience out there that weâÄôre writing for,âÄù Bognanni said.

And it works for the audience too: Death Matchers prove to them that literature can be a relevant, sexy bonding experience.

 âÄúThereâÄôs this idea that literature is falling apart, that nobody cares. But the fact of the matter is that the whole of our existence in our relation to one another is story-telling.âÄù Zuniga said. âÄúWith that in mind, weâÄôre doing great.âÄù